How Lakers Star Kobe Bryant's Injury Affects Jeremy Lin, James Harden's Rockets' NBA Playoff Hopes

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First Posted: Mar 15, 2013 09:52 PM EDT

(Photo : Reuters) An injury to LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant, far left, seen here returning Friday against the Pacers, may benefit Jeremy Lin, second from right, and James Harden, far right as the Houston Rockets try and build momentum in the playoff standings.

One man's loss is another man's gain, and when it comes to the rapidly shrinking playoff picture in the NBA's Western Conference one team's plight may be what helps propel another.

Specifically, the L.A. Lakers' latest troubles in the potentially-devastating ankle injury to Kobe Bryant could be the opportunity that James Harden, Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets might have been waiting for as they seek to separate themselves from the pack in the Western Conference Playoff Race.

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The No.7 seeded Rockets are locked in a competitive four-way battle for playoff positioning between the eighth-seeded Lakers, No.6 seed Golden State, and Utah, who is just a half-game out of the eighth seed.  And the schedule for the Rockets doesn't get much easier in the remaining seven games of March, where they play against Golden State, Utah, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers, and end the month with a four-game stretch against playoff heavy-hitters San Antonio, Indiana, Memphis and the L.A. Clippers.

But as much as several well-timed wins in the remaining seven games would give the Rockets a boost-both in the standings and in confidence-heading into the final regular season stretch, what could also help is that the Rockets' most imminent threat to their No.7 seed spot, the Lakers, are slowed down with a few ill-timed losses on their part.

Despite having sustained a severe ankle injury on Wednesday night--thanks to a play from Dahntay Jones which Bryant hinted at as being a "dirty" play--that was supposed to keep him out indefinitely, Bryant actually returned Friday night to the Lakers' starting lineup against the Pacers.

However, questions will undoubtedly be asked of the Lakers' star as the Lakers compete through the final stretch of games of the season in a mad dash to stay in playoff contention.

How severe is the injury? Can Kobe's ankle hold up under the pressure of no rest and little time to make the playoffs? And if he can't and gets re-injured again, what happens to the Lakers then? Can the once-struggling Lakers be carried on the broad shoulders of Dwight Howard while Bryant heals, and will that be enough to last beyond their last season game on April 17, against the Rockets, no less?

Since vowing that the Lakers would make the playoffs, Bryant has been on fire, averaging 30.8 points on 48 percent shooting in the last 10 games and 29.7 points in the month of March. But without the Black Mamba at his most venomous, deadliest best, the Lakers may be the ones who get snake-bit with a harder road to the playoffs on the horizon.

The Lakers' schedule is actually an odd juxtaposition to the Rockets. While Houston has its most difficult stretch of the remaining season this month, next month poses an easier schedule for them. Meanwhile, the Lakers have only two of their remaining games in March against playoff contenders (Milwaukee and Golden State) before they face a tougher April schedule against the Clippers, Grizzlies, Dallas, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.

The Lakers have won 9 of their last 12 games since the All-Star break, but Kobe and company need to win now as safety cushioning for any turbulence they might encounter down the stretch in April. The Rockets, by contrast, have a much easier schedule in April that favors the league's No.2 ranked team offense. Barring any ill-timed injuries, Houston could end their season in April on a hot streak as they propel into the No. 6 seed. Of course, a struggle in the win-loss column would mean that they could drop to eight while the Lakers move up to their seventh spot.

But with Lin's play steadily improving down the stretch, averaging 14.4 points and 5.2 assists in the last five games, while Harden has played on a tear in the last 10 games, netting 26.9 points on 46.3 percent shooting as the Rockets have won a respectable six of their last 10 contests, the odds are starting to look in Houston's favor.

Both teams will have to keep the pressure on as they vie to pull ahead in the playoff standings. But with the Lakers nursing their wounds and the Rockets continuing to remain healthy, it looks like Harden and Lin are primed for what could be a strong finish. 

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